A word in your ear

13th April 2007 at 01:00
West Lothian is the only education authority to have created the post of school chaplain. However, his role is not only to provide spiritual guidance to pupils and staff; he also shares their concerns and helps the children deal with everyday problems - or more serious worries. He even runs breakfast clubs at schools

IAIN SCOULAR is the "worry-catcher" for children at Windyknowe Primary in Bathgate when he visits them once a week.

At lunchtimes every Thursday, they queue up to share their concerns - the trivial and the more serious. Their best friend might be playing with someone else at playtime, or their granny might be very ill.

It was the children who came up with the name, but it's very apposite.

The idea of inviting an outsider into school for pupils to confide in started in the cluster led by Bathgate Academy, says Rae Malcolm, the headteacher at Windyknowe. The children christened the previous incumbent "the worry-catcher" and when she moved on, her successor took on the mantle.

Mr Scoular is the school chaplain for Windyknowe and the chaplaincy co-ordinator for West Lothian, the only education authority to have created such a post. His colleagues include the Roman Catholic chaplain for St Margaret's Academy and the presbytery clerk of the Church of Scotland; also working with him in the chaplaincy are members of the Episcopalian Church, Bapstist Union and Gospel Hall. In addition to worry-catching, his role is to ensure that religious observance is part of A Curriculum for Excellence.

Mrs Malcolm is full of praise for Mr Scoular's "worry-catching" abilities - and finds that boys in particular respond well to having a man in the role. "The children find it very helpful," she says.

"Teachers are always expected to give the stock answers when someone has a worry. But he is a parent himself and can give an answer from that perspective too. He follows school lines but does not necessarily talk in school language."

She does not know how many of her pupils or their parents go to church, but recognises that bringing a spiritual element into school life brings real benefits.

A few years ago, Iain Scoular retired through ill health from BP where he was their educational trainer, focusing on further education. He went back to university and became a lay Church of Scotland minister. His new remit allows him to concentrate on Bathgate and Broxburn academies particularly, but he also has to put together multi-faith, multi-disciplinary teams to assist all the West Lothian schools in their religious observance provision. "It changes school by school and depends on the staff and the religious denominations," he says.

Under the new guidelines, secondary schools must provide opportunities for religious observance on a minimum of six occasions - in addition to Christmas and Easter. Some schools look to the chaplains to do no more than deliver an assembly, but for Mr Scoular the remit is much wider. He and his chaplaincy colleagues often join the teaching team, work alongside guidance staff and play a key role in the transition between primary and secondary.

The chaplains help run school camps and a breakfast club for children who arrive at school early because their parents have to go to work. Some act as invigilators because the teachers and pupils feel they can trust them.

Some chaplains can be found in libraries at lunchtime - just in case anyone wants to chat to them. "Can I have a quick word with you?" is a common request. "My granny has died" or "My mum is moving out" can be the next part of the conversation.

One query for Mr Scoular was: "My mum has just had a baby to her new boyfriend, and my dad's girlfriend has just had a baby. Which one's my brother or sister?"

He sees the chaplains' role as "assisting in the ethos of the school", rather than just fulfilling the obligation of six assemblies. Basically, they will work wherever they feel needed. He has even gone on fishing trips with the children.

Some chaplains work directly with difficult or troubled children, going a step beyond routine pastoral care and guidance. Mr Scoular counselled one teenage boy on everything from apprenticeships to more personal matters.

The boy died recently in an accident and Mr Scoular spent two hours in the funeral parlour, the day before the funeral, counselling a group of his friends who had no history of church-going. They didn't know anything about carrying a coffin at a funeral and, more fundamentally, had no means of coping with death.

But chaplains can also counsel teachers and other school staff who have been bereaved. "Being a chaplain is not just for the pupils but for the whole school," he says.

The move from the more traditional form of religious observance to one based on spirituality has been embraced by all the ministers in the chaplaincy, he says. None of them would be comfortable with the old tradition of the minister standing at the front of the assembly in his black robes: "We know we need to move away from that."

The average age of chaplains serving the Broxburn area is greater than 60, he says, but their advancing years do not seem to be a barrier to communication with the young.

"The missing bit in their young lives is parental or grandparents' role,"

he says. "They get the spiritual and whole-person aspect from the chaplaincy team."

Some teachers and heads are unsure about the new role of chaplains, however, and sceptical about assemblies. One depute head, given the responsibility of providing religious observance, was blunt. He wanted the chaplaincy team to keep their assemblies to the minimum. In his view, the chaplain's job was to "stand up in front, tell you about Jesus, you don't believe it, and then you get on with school". He has since revised his views.


Two years ago, the rule book was rewritten for religious observance. The new guidance from the Scottish Executive, following a detailed consultation, shifted the emphasis onto pupils' spiritual development rather than religious observance.

Religion was defined as being effectively a "subset" of spirituality; the message was that religious observance should no longer be treated as a spectator sport but as something that everyone could and should be included in.

For statutory reasons, the term "religious observance" was retained but the content and approach have changed radically. Now, because religious observance no longer advances the cause of one religion but the spiritual development of everyone in the school, there is less opting-out by staff and withdrawal of pupils by parents.

Schools are required to produce a minimum of six religious observance events per year, in addition to traditional celebrations (for most schools, Christmas and Easter). HM inspectors have begun to inspect the provision of religious observance, looking not just at the quantity but also the quality.

Ken Coulter, a former Church of Scotland minister, now development officer for religious observance at Learning and Teaching Scotland, says the new approach makes it much easier for all children to take part in religious assemblies.

He points to the work at Burnside Primary in Rutherglen where Jehovah's Witness and Muslim parents, who had previously taken their children out of religious assemblies, have withdrawn their objections. "Parents see that their children are not coming to school to be converted but are attending assemblies for spiritual development," he says.

Julie Wilson, a class teacher and recently ordained Church of Scotland minister, is Burnside's unofficial co-ordinator for religious and moral education. She attributes the school's success in making religious observance a more inclusive experience to the Cambuslang and Rutherglen Outreach Trust, which is attached to the local Church of Scotland parish church.

The pupils would come into assembly and find music playing and something to look at that set the tone. There might be a revolving set of slides showing quiet countryside scenes. An introductory activity would invite children to think about the world they live in. They might talk about a particular religious tradition, perhaps with an object on the table related to a celebration.

At the end there would be space and calm to allow pupils to think. They might listen to someone reading a poem or playing more music. Or they might be asked to think how they could make life more peaceful for those around them.

Everything is done by invitation, she says. Nothing is forced on anyone:

"Every teacher is invited to take responsibility for an assembly, but because they have seen a very well modelled process and an inclusive approach, it is much easier for them."

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